The skinny version: Drunk continues Thundercat’s slow ascent; his most ambitious work yet, one that wants you take it as a whole so you can experience getting drunk alongside Thundercat and stumble through the streets at 3 AM. Think: “Oh Sheit It’s X” in album form.
And I do mean slow ascent. While I love it whenever Thundercat’s distinctive vocals or distinguished bass playing graces another album — ie. matching Flying Lotus’ interstellar vision in Cosmogramma with a spacey and sweet vocal on “MmmHmm”; providing breathing room on To Pimp a Butterfly’s overwhelming “Wesley’s Theory” with a bridge that had some of his most biting lyrics ever — I’ve never fallen in love with any of his solo records, this one included. On debut The Golden Age of Apocalypse, not enough highlights. On sophomore Apocalypse, highlights that dwarfed the rest of the album. The same goes for EP The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam: while most people flocked to “Them Changes” (which appears here for no reason), I personally loved the bi-partite “Lone Wolf and Cub”, which paired him with legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and then turned into a sprint through alien jungles.
As mentioned, Drunk is less about highlights in individual songs: the album that spans 23 tracks and running 51 minutes total with only a few songs breaching the 3-minute mark will tell you that much. Another point worth noting: this one has more high-profile features than normal: Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Kendrick Lamar, Wiz Khalifa and Pharrell. Plus: frequent production collaborators in Flying Lotus and Mono/Poly (responsible for “Friend Zone”), and an uncredited Kamasi Washington on the previously unreleased “Them Changes”. But the thing is, none of these features stand out in the way you’d expect them to: Kendrick Lamar doesn’t burn the house down on “Walk On By” like he usually does (because the song doesn’t call for it); you can easily distinguish between Thundercat’s falsetto and that of Kenny Loggins’ or Pharrell’s, but they’re not exactly worlds apart, and Kamasi Washington’s part on “Them Changes” is barely noticeable in one of those features that you wouldn’t know existed if not for the internet — that could’ve been anyone playing those lines.
Not to say that there aren’t highlights: “Jameel’s Space Ride” has synths that make it sound like I’m standing on a busy Tokyo intersection, surrounded by vibrant cyan’s, purple’s and magenta’s, perfectly following up the preceding “Tokyo”’s sentiment (“A love affair with Tokyo”). But the lyrics suggest otherwise: “I want to go right, I’m safe on my block / Except for the cops / Will they attack? / Would it be ‘cause I’m black,” he ponders in one of the album’s more serious moments. But he runs through the lines without drawing attention to them and then switches to more positive thoughts, culminating a “FUCK YEAH!” release that’s basically the smack-middle of the album. A fantastic song, that’s only 1 minute and I just devoted a full paragraph to it.
“More serious moments.” Don’t get me wrong, I love absurdity, and better yet if the absurdity is humourous or is meant to be revelatory. By contrast, Drunk revels in absurdity (usually by way of nerd argot that sometimes recalls Flying Lotus’ alter-ego Captain Murphy on “Tokyo” and “Friend Zone”) but is usually neither of those qualities. I can forgive Thundercat’s meowing on “A Fan's Mail (Tron Song Suite II)” because he really loves his cat, but I’m less enthused to how he farts himself awake at the end of “Captain Stupido” even if I understand that he’s playing a caricature. Compare that to the lyrics of the proper song, beginning with the acknowledgement, “I feel weird” and trying to dispel that feeling through any means possible — including beating it. That’s revelatory: the notion that mundane activities like combing your beard and brushing your teeth can’t make you feel normal, that you have to beat off and go to sleep. Contrast these to Kendrick Lamar’s (“Nine times out of ten, young niggas are nine or ten”) or Pharrell’s (“Black, white, gay, straight human beings all pee and want some ass”) verses.
Other highlights: getting to hear a blitzkrieg jazz fusion of “Uh Uh” that’s immediately followed by the sweetest production on the album in “Bus in These Streets”, recalling the early 60s; Mono/Poly’s synth-line on “Friend Zone” that lets me skirt over the aforementioned lyrics (he’s presumably referring to the immense Diablo II instead of the disappointing Diablo III but it’s a dated reference regardless); the low-volume and high-detail drumming on “Where I’m Going,” where Thundercat adopts a more raspy vocal instead of his flightier normal one. And some people might not be so enthused by Wiz Khalifa’s verse, but he sounds appropriately washed out over the minimal instrumentation.
Yet: despite Thundercat’s ability to merge genres — he sings soul, he plays jazz, he has other people rap — there’s a lack of diversity that would otherwise make an album like this work; think Game Theory’s Lolita Nation or Pavement’s Wowee Zowee or what have you. (Not to mention his “ooh”’s a bit one-note.) The hard truth: the album especially lags in the final stretch, with nothing remarkable occurring beginning with the miniature “I Am Crazy” except the Pharrell feature. Put another way: listening to this album Saturday night, drunk on my way, I delighted in the album’s twists and turns. Listening to this album Sunday afternoon, stone-sober, I’m much less enthused. B